*Note: The information contained in this post has been amended and is superseded by a newer article titled SAFEA, Foreign Teachers, and Chinese Boxes.
There has been a rumor circulating around various TEFL forums about a so-called "5-year rule" in which it has been alleged that foreign teachers can only remain in China for a total of five concurrent years before having to leave the country for an undisclosed period of time. Others have reported it as a "2-year" and "3-year" rule as well. The rather questionable rationale proffered for this rule is that it is implemented so that foreign teachers can be forced to return to their countries of origin for something of renewed exposure to (or a "refresher course" in) their native English dialect.This struck us as lacking face validity from the moment we read it.
In fact, we contacted high-ranking officials in two different provincial foreign affairs offices and were informed emphatically that no such law or SAFEA regulation exists: It is entirely a myth. If your FAO or school informs you that you need to leave the school because of this so-called rule, it is because they are looking to change teachers and are hoping to give you face in the process.
As one official stated with 100% certainty: "Foreigners can live in China for as long as they want with legal documents unless they have criminal records." So there you have it, directly from the horse's mouth so to speak. If you are rapidly approaching the 5-year mark in China, we strongly advise that you don't start packing quite yet unless you plan to return home of your own volition at the end of your contract. And if your employer ever does mention the "X-year rule," just start looking for another position. For as long as you are legally employed here with a valid residency permit, you will not have to leave China unless you want to.
The only specific reference to a "5-year rule" we are aware of pertains to the duration of a single employment contract, i.e., a school cannot sign a contract with a foreign expert for more than five years in duration at a time. However, the law also states that the foreign expert is free to reapply for a new foreign expert certificate by submitting a new official contract (and it can be with the same employer).